At the Olympics, the pinnacle of sporting events, the tiniest fraction of a difference determines the gold medallist. On Weibo, Chinese netizens go on one emotional roller coaster ride after another as they watch the matches with bated breath.
Japan is the host of this year’s Olympic Games. Due to historical baggage or complicated issues to do with nationalist sentiment, since the opening ceremony to the competition proper, China and Japan have been embroiled in one incident after another.
The men’s individual all-around gymnastics finals on 28 July also ignited great debate. Chinese netizens pointed out that Chinese gymnast Xiao Ruoteng gave a stellar performance but he lost the gold medal to Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto, despite the latter making several mistakes and stepping out of bounds on his landing off the vault.
While Xiao congratulated his competitor and his coach calmly dealt with the situation, Chinese public opinion went into overdrive. Some media outlets said that Xiao’s gold medal was “stolen” from him, while angry netizens flocked to Weibo to speak up for Xiao, questioning the impartiality of the judges towards players from the host country. Topics such as “Xiao Ruoteng clinched the silver medal in the men’s individual all-around gymnastics finals” and “gymnastics judge” quickly became hot searches on Weibo.
Netizens said that Xiao remains the champion in the hearts of the Chinese despite the results of the competition. Some netizens even posted sarcastic gymnastics “basic facts” to mock the judges and host country, namely:
1) The winner of this year’s men’s individual all-around gymnastics final at Tokyo 2020 is the silver medallist
2) The judges of Tokyo 2020 are blind
3) Hashimoto stepped out of bounds so he could land on the bonus points button
Taking a wider view, China today is confident and stands on an equal footing with the world. Does it still need Olympic gold medals to prove its rise?
Former Chinese gymnasts such as Li Xiaopeng, Chen Yibing, and Yang Wei also spoke up for Xiao and said that the results were indeed regrettable. Among them, Yang Wei’s remarks were the longest and also the most interesting.
His Weibo post read: “It’s such a pity. Although today’s China does not need gold medals to prove its rise, Chinese sports, our gymnasts, and Xiao Ruoteng do. It is indeed unfair that only 0.9 points were deducted in total for Hashimoto’s vault take-off, second flight, and landing. I applaud Xiao Ruoteng’s and Sun Wei’s performance today as they have done their best. We are proud of you! You are our all-around gymnastics gold medalists.”
Yang Wei’s comments put a different perspective on things. Taking a wider view, China today is confident and stands on an equal footing with the world. Does it still need Olympic gold medals to prove its rise?
The Olympics a showcase of national strength
Opinions differ on this question.
With China’s growing overall national strength, some people think that the confidence that sports wins can give to the country and people is diminishing. However, it is undeniable that the Olympics remains a platform for showcasing a country’s overall national strength and its economic and technological prowess.
Looking at the medal tally of past Olympic Games, the top ten countries in the league table mostly come from G7 countries. China, Russia, and other major powers strong in sports, as well as developed countries such as South Korea and Australia, also stand a chance to be on this list. This implies that the Olympics is not just a sports competition but a battleground for countries to showcase national strength. Gold medals not only bring glory to athletes but are also the spoils of the tussle among major powers to some extent.
Gou Zhongwen, director of the Chinese General Administration of Sport and head of the Chinese delegation, listed a few goals for Team China during a working meeting of the Chinese Olympic team in the middle of this month. He said, “We must resolutely curb the continuous decline of the country’s Olympic performance in recent years and ensure we are first in gold medals and total medals at the Tokyo Olympics.”
China’s gold medal count has been in decline for three consecutive Olympics and so has its ranking on the medal table. The fact that Gou emphasised the need to “resolutely curb” the decline in China’s Olympic performance also reflects the anxiety behind the falling ranking.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China topped the medal tally with a total of 51 gold medals based on its advantage as host country. During the 2012 London Olympics, China ranked second overall for clinching 38 gold medals — eight gold medals less than the US, which placed first. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, China only clinched 26 gold medals, coming in behind the US’s 46 gold medals and the UK’s 27 gold medals.
A country’s ranking on the medal table is based on the number of gold medals the country wins. The number of silver medals only comes into play when two countries are tied in their number of gold medals. China’s gold medal count has been in decline for three consecutive Olympics and so has its ranking on the medal table. The fact that Gou emphasised the need to “resolutely curb” the decline in China’s Olympic performance also reflects the anxiety behind the falling ranking.
Team China failed to clinch any gold medal on the third day of the Tokyo Olympics. China was even defeated in the men’s 10m synchronised diving and table tennis mixed doubles competitions where they were the shoo-ins. This greatly disheartened the Chinese netizens who either expressed their dissatisfaction online or continued cheering the athletes on.
State media advises public to look at gold medals more rationally
The next day, an article by a newspaper affiliated with the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission (《中国纪检监察报》) said, “We should be less critical and more understanding of Chinese athletes who don’t realise their hopes of winning a gold medal.” It said that gold medals are great but silver and bronze medals are commendable too. It further urged spectators to be rational about gold medals and to take winning and losing in stride, which is in keeping with the Olympic spirit of “faster, higher, stronger — together”.
In particular, the article mentioned that when swimmer Zhang Yufei gave her own performance 99 points in the women’s 100m butterfly for clinching the silver medal, people should have been glad as this showed that the younger generation of Chinese athletes has a more well-rounded and profound understanding and interpretation of sports and the Olympics.
Chinese media could have consecutively published articles of this sort out of the need to defend the athletes, cheer its sports industry on, or guide the mixed voices on social media in a more positive direction.
The People’s Daily Online also published an article titled “The Rise of the Post-2000s Generation: Optimistic and Confident Young Chinese Athletes are Taking on the World” on 28 July. It praised young Chinese athletes such as Yang Qian, Jiang Ranxin, Chen Yuxi, Zhang Jiaqi, Sheng Lihao for not only being confident and relaxed in their matches but also natural and composed in front of the cameras. The article said that their positive attitudes and passion showed their maturity and progress. Their confidence, optimism, courage and drive have let the world see what the next generation of spirited young Chinese athletes are made of.
An article on voc.com.cn (华声在线) titled “The Olympics as a Window into China” also mentioned that the Olympics has given the world a glimpse of “the calm, open-minded, peaceful and confident posture of China as it faces the world on an equal footing”. It said that China is no longer fixated on gold medals because it has “long gotten past the need to prove itself through others”.
The article added that even as China adds inspirational chapters to its sporting history, it is exemplifying the legendary rise of a great power. This is a country that went from almost being “written off the face of the earth” to being the world’s second largest economy; from a backward agricultural nation, it became the world’s largest manufacturing power; and it made the historical leap from having insufficient food to being a moderately affluent society in all aspects. Today, it “stands firm on the world stage and no longer needs medals to prove itself”.
An article on workercn.cn (中工网) titled “The Olympics is Not Only about Winning and Medals” also pointed out that gold medals and victories are not the only things that bring people joy in a global sports fests like the Olympics. It said to a certain extent, the mark of a great sporting nation does not lie in the number of gold medals that it has clinched, but in having an increasingly mature and confident mindset that understands and loves sports.
Chinese media could have consecutively published articles of this sort out of the need to defend the athletes, cheer its sports industry on, or guide the mixed voices on social media in a more positive direction. But it is certain that these articles are aimed at encouraging the following points of view: one, to have a more rational approach to gold and understand that silver and bronze are praiseworthy as well; two, a China that deals with the world on an equal footing need not be fixated on gold medals; and three, the post-00s generation of athletes are confident and have a comprehensive understanding of the Olympics.
The three questions on the Olympics have long been answered
Looking back in history, the Olympics has been of great significance to China. In the words of an article published on The Beijing News, In a century of history, from the country’s humble beginnings to its success at overcoming tough challenges, China’s century-old Olympic dream has not only seen the rise of a sporting power but the development of a world power.
One hundred and thirteen years ago in 1908, the Tianjin Youth (《天津青年》) magazine raised three questions concerning the Olympics:
1) When will China send an athlete to the Olympics?
2) When will China win a gold medal at the Olympics?
3) When will China host the Olympics?
Time has answered these questions.
In July 1984, Chinese pistol shooter Xu Haifeng won China’s first gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in the 50m pistol category. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, China ranked third in the world for the first time. Come 2022, Beijing will make history as it becomes the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympics.
Put in the broader scheme of things, China officially joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, representing its return to international society and connection with the world. In 2008, China successfully hosted the Beijing Olympics and showed the world its development and achievements. In 2010, China’s GDP surpassed that of Japan’s and became the second largest economy in the world. This year, Chinese astronauts entered their own space station for the first time, ushering in the new era of space mission missions.
While it is difficult for a great power to let go of its fixation on “gold”, there is no need to brood over an athlete’s inability to win a gold medal. There is much more to a country’s and people’s spirit and image than just the number of gold medals it has earned.
The best representation of China’s image
Author of Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture Michael Poliakoff said that the sports field provided ancient Greeks with a place to showcase the qualities of courage and perseverance needed in war.
Thus, the Olympics is not just a competition of national strength but also a place to showcase a nation’s spirit and image. It is closely related to a country’s honour and people’s confidence. While it is difficult for a great power to let go of its fixation on “gold”, there is no need to brood over an athlete’s inability to win a gold medal. There is much more to a country’s and people’s spirit and image than just the number of gold medals it has earned.
Chinese shooter Yang Qian won China’s first gold medal at the Olympics and made a heart sign with her arms when she was on the podium. She explained that she saw two girls sending her heart signs, and naturally reciprocated. This is one of the gestures that youngsters in the post-00s generation use to express themselves.
Some say that a smiling Yang Qian making a heart sign is the best representation of China’s image.
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